Fresh Off the Boat:

The Americanization Process in Anya’s Ghost and American Born Chinese (Part One)

One concept that often shows up in multiethnic literature is the “FOB”— Fresh Off the Boat—immigrant. This concept shows up either directly or indirectly in a variety of multiethnic sources and appears to be an issue of anxiety for many first and second-generation immigrants.  Although there is a gross tendency to “lump” immigrants together—as seen with often happens in the treatment of ESL students in public schools and even higher education—I find it particularly interesting this exact phrase shows up in the literature of many different ethnic groups and appears to be some sort of shared experience.  While this concept is not new and has been explored in more traditional forms of literature, it is slowly beginning to make its way into another more recently accepted form of literature: Comics and graphic novels.  As an emerging form of literature, it is interesting to see how this particular theme is presented when compared to its earlier treatment in more traditional forms of literature.  Vera Brosgol’s 2011 graphic novel, Anya’s Ghost, participates in the dialogue surrounding the existence of and anxiety over being a “FOB.”  Of course, one cannot look at the process of Americanization in graphic novels without a close examination of Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning graphic novel, American Born Chinese—one of the most well known examples of a graphic novel that weaves the anxieties of an immigrant family and avoiding the stigma of being a “FOB” into its story.

The term “FOB” is still a relatively new term in the American-English lexicon[1], though it’s meaning is not.  It stands for “Fresh Off the Boat” and it used as a sort of slang, often derogatory, to refer to immigrants and their families in a broad sense.  More specifically, it is typically used to mark individuals who have not completely assimilated into American culture (or become Americanized), and thereby standout as a result of their adherence to their cultural heritage.  However, there is also a movement to reclaim, or at the very least, disarm these terms through their use by those marked [2]. Salman Rushdie states: “To turn insults into strengths, Whigs, Tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn” (93).  While the validity of and debate over the reclamation and use of these highly charged and often opprobrious terms continues, it is worth looking at the Americanization process of assimilation that faces many immigrants upon their arrival in the United States and the generations of family members who follow.

For many generations, the United States perpetuated the romantic notion of it being a great “melting pot” where people of all different cultures, ethnicities, races, religions, economic classes and other backgrounds all came together to form a collective American identity.  Although this may seem inclusive and appealing to some, the reality proved that this process could prove traumatizing for many being “boiled in the pot,” often leaving newcomers in a difficult position of choosing to forsake the culture of their country of origin for their new homeland or else face living a marginalized life.  Even those who chose assimilation were not guaranteed full status in this land of opportunity.  Werner Sollors discusses this when he quotes Malcolm X: “I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over.  Is it not time to write my life’s story?” (32).  The idea here is that the individual is converted to the “saving grace of the American future” and thereby reject the “adversary of ethnicity” (33).  Although contemporary readers might balk at such a dichotomous fallacy, this was nonetheless the choice many people faced upon arrival (and still do) and as they continued to seek social acceptance.

In her article, “Immigration, Citizenship, Racialization: Asian American Critique,” Lisa Lowe documents a number of ways in which Asian countries have “been a complex site on which the manifold anxieties of the U.S. nation-state have been figured” (4).  Moving from the 19th century up to the present day, Lowe examines the tensions between the predominantly Anglo-European culture of the United States and how it has reacted and responded to its Asian immigrant population.  She posits that these responses have most often served as “Orientalist racializations” particularly during periods of “domestic crisis of capital” that result in various anti-immigration and naturalization laws and increased “exclusionist rhetoric” (4-5).  She concludes that as a result of this history, Asian immigrants and Asian-born Americans “had always included a ‘class formation’ and a ‘gender formation’ that mediated through” the culture in which they sought to live (14).  With this formation of class and gender lines, it comes to no surprise, then, that there would be further social lines drawn between those who were “fresh off the boat” and those who had successfully assimilated into the dominant culture—or so they believed.  While “the universal granting of citizenship to all members” served as the foundation for American “civil society and the state,” the reality pointed towards an established history of “that guaranteed the rights of those white male citizens over nonwhites and women” (27).  For Lowe and many Asian American critics, “‘political emancipation’ through citizenship is never an operation” that is truly available to Asian Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, Chicanos, or any other nonwhite group (26).  Americanization is simply an illusion that reifies the segregation of peoples by ethnicity and race—one group as the dominant and all others as foreigners and secondary to Anglo-American culture.  As a result, this process—invisible to many Caucasian Americans—is most often viewed as damaging and oppressive for those who face it.  In many regards, Americanization is simply a term that is a specialized form of inculcation unique to individuals assimilating or confronting assimilation to life in the United States.

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries opened up new and unconventional forms of literature through comics and graphic novels that provide an even more accessible way for creators[3] to get their voices heard.  Certainly, comics ability to communicate through both a textual and visual means enable them to cross language boundaries that conventional novels cannot always do.  As a result, this makes comics and graphic novels an excellent vehicle for continuing this cross-culture discourse.

Anya’s Ghost is a graphic novel written and drawn by Vera Brosgol, and its central plotline focuses on an adolescent girl’s encounter with and eventual attempt to rid herself of a ghost that desired to manipulate her life in order to live again vicariously through Anya.  Although their relationship begins amicably enough, it becomes clear that the ghost’s intentions are far less honorable as the story progresses.  Although Anya’s Ghost may initially appear to be a story of teen angst, suspense and the supernatural, at its heart, this graphic novel demonstrates the importance of recognizing value in one’s immigrant culture and not blindly accepting cultural assimilation with open arms.  At the end, Brosgol does not totally reject the possibility for finding acceptance in the United States, but instead advocates a blending of both Anya’s native Russian culture with her new American life.

From the very beginning of the story, the reader is immediately introduced to the cultural conflict playing out in Anya’s day-to-day life as she strives to be more American while her mother maintains the old customs from Russia.  The first panels of the story open with her mother lovingly making a traditional Russian breakfast as the children are preparing to go to school when Anya complains: “Aw maaaan!  Those things are so greasy!  Can’t we just get low-fat Pop-Tarts or something?” (Brosgol 2).  Although her mother reminds her that she used to love this meal, Anya’s already well on her through the Americanization process with her desire to conform to the desire of American boys: “Oh boy, again with the back in Russia.  I don’t think American boys really go for the girl that look like rich men” (4).  Although she takes the food, she quickly throws it out in the garbage outside.  It is interesting to note that in doing so, Brosgol’s visual portrayal of Anya reflects a guilty expression as she literally rejects the food given to her by her mother, which is emblematic of a greater rejection of her ethnicity as a Russian American—something she seems to recognize as painful to some extent.  This rejection is reinforced in one of the few times Anya is complimentary of her mother is when she asks Anya for help in studying for her citizenship test: “Sure, mom.  I admire your dedication to democracy” (74).  Unfortunately, it is only under the context of Americanizing that Anya is able to look favorably on her mother.

Anya’s initial encounter with Emily, the ghost, seems safe enough at the beginning as she seeks to find ways to assist Anya in further assimilating into her American high school.  Emily helps Anya with her homework, whispering the “right” things to say to encourage the boys to like her, as well as dress the way American boys would like most: “Are you sure it’s not too… loose-womany? […]  I kinda feel slutty” (Brosgol 114).  Emily reminds her that this is what her research on American culture has shown as the way to get what one wants, and so, Anya falls in line temporarily.  It only after she is welcomed into the “teen scene” that Anya quickly realizes how unhappy these American girls are with the superficial culture they’ve embraced as the boys make the rounds with the “loose-womany” girls.  This is made most clear at a party Anya attends when she finds the boy she likes two-and-three timing his girlfriend—with her fully aware of this happening: “I can hear you thinking it.  So go ahead and say it. […] Sure he gets…bad at parties.  But I’m the one he’s seen with.  I’m the one people look at and know—‘that’s his girlfriend!’” (124).  Clearly, this Americanization process is one that transcends more than immigrants and their families but also naturalized citizens as well who must continue to maintain the appearance of being American.  Further, it speaks to the ways it can subject young teens to playing roles that are damaging to all members involved in the act.

Another aspect of the comic that is perhaps the most poignant in highlighting the tension between the desire to be accepted into American culture and not utterly abandon one’s ethnic heritage is seen in Anya’s fellow Russian American classmate, Dima.  His diminutive stature is reflected in his name, and he seems to reflect the stereotypical traits one might expect of someone who simply does not fit within an American high school social setting: Overly book smart, big glasses, a poor hair cut, overly eager to assist his teachers, unable to understand the idioms of American-English, and he still maintains important cultural activities such as his participation in the Russian Orthodox church—all of which Anya clearly rejects: “God, what a little freak!!!  Can you not see why it’s not good for me to be seen with him?” (Brosgol 83).  What Anya doesn’t and can’t admit is that it isn’t good for her to be around Dima because it forces her to recognize a part of herself that she is desperate to forget.  Emily confusedly asks Anya during lunch why she wouldn’t stand up for Dima when he is being harassed by a group of bullies: “Well, back when I was alive, your people were your family.  You defended each other no matter what” (57).  Anya, with a dour look on her face replies: “Well, times have changed.  You act like a fobby creep, you get creamed” (57).  Here, the recurring notion of the “FOB” is made explicit and Anya’s rejection of her Russian heritage is brought out into the open.

By the end of the novel, however, Anya begins to realize Emily, her “personal” ghost, does not have the best of intentions for her.  Instead, Emily is discovered to have been responsible for the murder of a young man (whom she loved) and a woman who she saw as a competitor, after having bought into the patriarchal American dream of getting married and raising a family.  Unable to deal with the rejection, she murdered the couple but died in the woods fleeing capture.  In some regards, she can be seen to serve as a sort of ghost of patriarchy and Americanization that continues to haunt young girls and those attempting to fit into American culture in her attempts to influence Anya into forgoing her own heritage and self-respect in her search to be a part of society.  Through Dima’s support and assistance, Anya is able to shake free of Emily’s influence and put the ghost to rest.  More important than ending the threat of the ghost, however, is that Anya comes to recognize how she was transferring her own self-hate onto fellow Russian Americans such as her family and Dima when she tells him: “The only thing that’s different about me now versus then is that I got some better clothes and got rid of my accent.  You’ll probably lose yours, too.  But even if you don’t, this is just high school.  Impressing a bunch of snooty teenagers is a pretty lame life goal to have” (Brosgol 151).  The facial expressions Brosgol draws clearly indicate that this message hit home for Dima, and it also serves to illustrate Anya’s growth in her acceptance of both aspects of her life—Russian and American.  By the end of the novel, the ghost is put to rest and Anya finds a place within her high school’s service learning program.  Where earlier in the story she lied about her name to sound more American, the novel ends with her proudly correcting the principal in the pronunciation of Borzakovskaya.  By the end, Brosgol positions Anya (and the reader) to see that being both American and Russian are not mutually exclusive propositions after all.

Although Anya’s Ghost could be misinterpreted as a simple comic book and below literary notice as Brosgol adopts more simple and cartoonish approach to her art, the storyline she delivers is anything but simplistic.  Her novel attempts to continue the discourse surrounding the difficulties many immigrants and their families experience in assimilating and Americanizing themselves while still struggling to hold on to their own ethnic heritage and practices.  One should not disqualify a novel because it adopts a different approach that is not traditionally seen as “serious” and often viewed as mere entertainment simply because it can entertain while still informing its readers; doing so would close one off to the different and exciting ways new authors and artists are picking up this highly relevant and much-needed discussion of an ever-growing presence of new Americans.


[1] While the term was no doubt in use within oral language before hand, the Oxford English Dictionary shows that earliest known use of the term is from The Los Angeles Times from 1968.

[2] One popular example of the social acceptance of the term “FOB” can best be seen at the My Mom is a Fob blog: http://mymomisafob.com/

[3] I use the term “creator” to refer to both writers and artists involved with comics and graphic novels.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie lives in Bristol, CT with his wife and two sons. He is an assistant professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. He received his Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he wrote his dissertation on the influence of canonical American literature on the development of the comic book superhero. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@fhelvie) discussing all things comics related.

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